Monday, June 30, 2008

Under the Arugula

Ok, I admit it. I'm probably one of the last people on the planet not to have read Under the Tuscan Sun (and while I'm passionate about art history and a good thriller, I didn't read The DaVinci Code, either--started to and couldn't get into it). I saw the movie with Diane Lane and loved it but of course, the movie is rarely as good or the same as the book. What is a joyful discovery about the book is that it is really a love affair about a house and a country. There is no great tearing off into uncharted waters alone--Frances Mayes is with a new love interest, although she had gone through a divorce--and she does return back and forth to her home and life in the United States.

I'm still in the beginnings of the memoir but one of the best parts is her description of food--she even has two sections on recipes: "Summer Kitchen" and "Winter Kitchen." To paraphrase Henry James, "summer kitchen" is one of the loveliest pairings of words in the English language. I'm rather partial to summer kitchens but more about that another time.

Early on Mayes describes a frequent meal that she and her partner make in their recently purchased Tuscan home. There are five ingredients: pasta, pancetta, cream, cheese, arugula (also called "rocket"--it reminds me of the wild watercress that we have in Kentucky). There is no recipe so, in similar fashion as Mayes would have done, I improvised. It was a delicious and easy summer meal. I served it with a good baguette. Of course, my trip last week to Trader Joe's was made with the purchase of a pre-diced box of pancetta, a bag of pre-washed arugula and some good shredded cheese in mind. Mayes would have gone to her local Italian vendors or open-air market.

Here is how Mayes described the dish, followed by how I prepared it. I tried, and succeeded, in replicating that seemingly breezy way that Mediterranean cooks seem to have with a few simple, fresh ingredients. Like so many French and Italian recipes, there is no exact science, more of a conjuring from what is on hand, something my friend, and fellow Cupcake, Edie often does with her "magic blue pot" (a lidded LeCreuset). [Edie is also in her first season of garlic-growing at Bee's Wing Farm and is conjuring up ways with the bushels of scapes she has recently cut. And speaking of bee's wings, I know she will also appreciate this uncanny device of cross-blog pollination.]

Those first pastas are divine. After long work, we eat everything in sight then tumble like field hands into bed. Our favorite is spaghetti with an easy sauce made from diced pancetta, unsmoked bacon, quickly browned, then stirred into cream and chopped wild arugula (called ruchetta locally), easily available in our driveway and along the stone walls. We grate parmigiano on top and eat huge mounds.
~ Frances Mayes
Pasta with Pancetta and Arugula a la Mayes

• Cook a box of good fettucine (1#) according to package instructions
• Meanwhile, sauté diced pancetta until nearly crisp
• Add several cups of arugula (I used a bag of it) until wilted
• Add enough cream to make it saucy (I used light cream, but it wasn't enough body; heavy cream provides thickness for the sauce)
• Add some freshly-ground black pepper (if you salt the pasta you will find that sufficient, as well as the natural salt from the pancetta)
• Toss with the freshly cooked, drained pasta and some shredded cheese
[Serves 4-5, depending on your preferred "mounds" of pasta]

Ironically, as Mayes prepared that in her new Italian home with fresh local market ingredients, amidst all the promise and potential a new home can have, I was preparing it in our New Hampshire home which is being boxed and packed in gradual increments while we await a new owner, as Mayes' villa did before she found it.

And so each evening we tumble like "field hands" into our deliberately easy dinners, covered with dust from our book and "stuff" sorting or emptying of the barn. It is a odd, uneven transition for me, an unusual summer, and while trying to "seize the day" I'm getting a bit bogged. So, to offset that "boggy" state of mind, I will try to blog a bit more often.

Less boggy: more bloggy. And more books ~ the television has hardly been on and I have no idea what is happening outside of our yard and house. Sometimes I rather like it that way.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The American Shakers

The magnificent round stone barn at Hancock Shaker Village

Two summers ago we went to spend a few nights in New Gloucester Maine with our friends, the last remaining Shakers in Sabbathday Lake (four at that time). We had gone up for a visit as Sister Frances is our youngest son's godmother and also because I was to photograph their pantries for The Pantry. While we haven't been back since, we have visited Pleasant Hill several times in the past two years, outside of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and last week we stopped at the Hancock Shaker Village outside of Pittsfield, Massachusetts on our way home from the Chaiwalla Tea Room (see previous blog entry).

My husband wanted me to photograph the famous round barn to show his Mennonite friends in Kentucky (one of whom has built a round barn out of modern materials and who would like to build one for us one day--slowly and phased, of course). Built out of limestone in 1826 for housing 52 cows and hay, and an ease for milking, it is the only round barn that the Shakers built in any of their communities. Inside it is cathedral-like in its expanse of timbering and solid stonework, something I find endearing about many old barns. [According to the Hancock Shaker Village website, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, who summered nearby and often entertained Boston area literati, had a footrace in this structure.]

The dwelling house (left) and poultry house at Hancock Shaker Village

We hadn't been there in about ten years and, while a beautiful Sunday afternoon on June 1st, there were many more staff there than tourists. I fear this may be the sign of the times with increased gas prices and fewer families exposing their children to historic-minded day trips. But that's beside the point and clearly a rumination for a cooler day (it is 95 with high humidity in our part of New Hampshire today so I'm a little on the grumpy side of things).

I was delighted to discover the canning room, pantries and kitchen, all located in the cool stone cellar of the Hancock dwelling house

What sparked today's blog was that I was putting something in our fridge on this very hot and humid day--which got me thinking about the cool stone kitchen and ample ice house at Hancock Shaker Village--and noticed a magnet that lists the tenets of the American Shakers, a copy of a framed sign that is at Sabbathday Lake. Apart from the celibate lifestyle, which clearly meant the future end of the order after they stopped adopting children and taking in entire families (and now with three remaining Shakers, the future is insecure at best and some would say already a former Utopian society--new Shakers are accepted but after careful consideration), these principles are fascinating in any era. In their credo of "hands to work, and hearts to God" and their simple, non-judgmental but separate lifestyles, Shaker followers were perhaps more Christ-like than most organized religions of today. But that, too, is beside the point (again, I am blaming the humidity and my crankiness, and besides, who wants to listen to someone who learns anything salient from a fridge magnet!).

The meetinghouse at Sabbathday Lake still holds Shaker-led services

I had not realized, for example, despite knowing the last Shakers and attending services at Sabbathday, that they believe in the "Duality of the Deity: Father and Mother God, The Mighty Dual Spirit, Creator of Life, Light, Truth and Love." They also acknowledge(d) a duality between Christ and Ann Lee, their founder, which other religions have also done between a deity and a mortal (Mormonism and Christian Science come to mind, and well before Christianity, there was Zoroastrianism, a pre-Islamic religion of duality).

The other principles for Shaker life and communal living are based in equality of the sexes, labor, and property. What an advanced notion for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at the height of the order. The Shakers would eventually settle in seven states--including Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana--after Ann Lee came to this country in 1774 for religious freedom from England. Several communities are still open as historically interpreted sites, including those mentioned above and Canterbury Shaker Village and the Enfield Shaker Museum, both in New Hampshire, as well as a few others.

An historic photograph of the interior of the Hancock dwelling house reveals the Shaker appreciation of symmetry and the duality of form following function [image from Hancock Shaker Village display]

Architecturally speaking, the Shakers embraced simplicity and ingeniousness of design, usually favoring symmetry and even the latest technology, as they did the dumbwaiter, at left. [Two identical dumbwaiters in two corners of the symmetrical kitchen lead to the men's and women's sides of the equally ordered dining room upstairs. And Shakers were into lots of build-ins, cupboards, nooks, and storage pantries as everything had a purpose and a place.]

Perhaps a balanced and ordered design, with two entries on most buildings and into most common areas, symbolized the duality of their thought and lifestyle as much as it was for practical purposes of separation of the sexes. Even though they believed in equality of the sexes, because they were a celibate order, living, dining and working was largely done without interaction between them. Entire families who joined were even separated.

This summer take your children or your grandchildren or your own friends to a Shaker community or other historic property. Carpool, save up your gas money or any money that you might have spent at a water park or amusement park or a trip to a mall (each unctuous in its own way--ok, there's that humidity crankiness setting in again). Make it a destination. I was so disheartened to see such low attendance at what is obviously a well-run museum and magnificent set of buildings, complete with many original contents and courteous interpreters who didn't hover too much.

My favorite building at Hancock Village is the garden tool shed

This is another grumbly aside. I once worked for an historic house museum organization where one of the curators, a bit older than myself, actually said that if she had her way the houses that we were interpreting and "keeping" would be mothballed for scholarly use only and closed to the public. [The specific house I worked at has been more or less mothballed since I worked there, but that is another grumbly aside: get thee to a Shaker ice house, Catherine!] I was shocked by this notion but she is probably not alone in that sentiment, her argument being that if the general public is kept away from preserved buildings and their contents, their longevity will be assured without the wear-and-tear. But what of the education and awareness of these objects and places? House museums and related historic sites need to remain accessible, interesting, and even savvy to survive. People want to see how others lived in the past and experiencing the buildings and their contents, although in need of perpetual preservation, is the best way to do that.

I know we are not alone as parents in wanting to bring our children to historic places, houses, farms and monuments. We live in an historic house in New Hampshire and, until we build our utopian farm, a modular in Kentucky (ok, a big five-bedroom doublewide). I certainly hope we are not a dwindling number of people who care about these great American treasures, apart from the people who curate them. What better way to teach history: through the actual places where history happened and is preserved.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Chaiwalla Tea Room

I haven't blogged in a few weeks and there has been much to blog about: a special wedding, more lilacs (my third and final, spectacular, round in returning to a glorious New Hampshire spring after also having lilacs in Kentucky and Ohio--a lovely, extended spring this year all around), new book projects, random thoughts (which of course I haven't jotted down), some recipes. [My youngest son is reading this blog entry over my shoulder and I can feel his warm chubby cheek on my own as he reads my words.]

One highlight in the hub bub of the last two weeks was a stop on Sunday at the Chaiwalla Tea Room** in Salisbury, Connecticut when we went to pick up our daughter for the summer.
Mary O'Brien has operated this tea room for 20 years and we spoke at length a few years ago -- when I was writing an article on New England tea rooms for Yankee Magazine -- about her efforts to bring quality imported loose tea to Americans when she first got started. [In fact, Mary introduced chai to this country well before it was trendy--her loose tea can be purchased in the shop or through the mail.] She remembered that conversation, which I'd mentioned only after she'd already said we could send her a check (they don't take credit cards and we didn't have a check on us, or enough cash: a brief moment of panic as we thought we'd need to wash dishes). While not her practice, she said she does let hikers on the Appalachian Trail--which passes through that part of northwestern Connecticut--send her checks all the time.

I last went to Chaiwalla about 15 years ago and it was exactly the same as I'd remembered it (I believe even our gracious waiter was the same as I never forget a face). Our daughter was five and we were visiting that region of Connecticut on a pop down from the Berkshires. My husband had not been before and was equally delighted with the fine food and service and atmosphere. It is not a cutsey tea room by any stretch: its decor is Zen-like with Shaker chairs and tables and photographs of classic Greek and Roman statues, definitely no Victorian tea room revival froufrou here.

At Chaiwalla, the emphasis is on a simple menu of exquisitely prepared food and an unusual selection of loose tea served in glass pots warmed over a candle and poured into glass mugs. Chaiwalla's atmosphere is probably reminiscent of the tea rooms that were once scattered about New England--more as tranquil stops for lunch or tea than the gussied up places of today who cater to women in big hats and gloves. [For an excellent book on this very topic, I highly recommend Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn-A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America by Jan Whitaker. While it is now out-of-print there are copies available on various websites. Jan also keeps a website on Vintage Tea Rooms which is worth exploring.] One has to applaud a tea room where you can bring your friends as well as your often picky, adamantly froufrou hating husband!

Because it was Sunday, we were able to select eggs Benedict from the menu and were not disappointed. The Hollandaise sauce was clearly homemade with a strong hint of lemon and the thinly sliced and flavorful ham superb. In addition to our tea we had glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice.

Of course we had room for dessert, as it was technically "brunch" after all -- 1 round of strawberry rhubarb cobbler and 2 slices of lemon tart (which was also quite custardy) -- all served from a Federal-style sideboard by our charming and attentive waiter. I am only sorry we do not live closer as I would certainly become a regular (I just remembered, however, that there is a small serving of leftover cobbler in the fridge!).

Chaiwalla Tea Room is at 1 Main Street in Salisbury, Connecticut 06068, in Litchfield County, located in the rural northwest corner of the state -- just south of the Berkshires region of Massachusetts and near the New York border. The tranquil and bucolic area is full of antiquing and many recreational and cultural opportunities. Call for hours: 860-435-9758. [NOTE: While we had only a few minutes to wait on a Sunday morning in May, with many local graduations, the Chaiwalla does not take reservations. If you allow extra time around your visit, you can stroll down Salisbury's lovely Main Street or into any number of shops.]

**Although providing interesting background on Chaiwalla, this review, from The New York Times, is almost 20 years old and describes the original tea room setting across the street.